Friday, May 24, 2024 May 24, 2024
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An Ode to Okra

Those ladyfingers were the highlight of my childhood Sunday suppers.
Illustration by Mary Woodin

The first time I fell in love, it was not with a girl. Girls had cooties and other incurable illnesses. No, my first love was okra. Okra presented itself in the only two forms that were acceptable to my elementary school diet: pickled and fried. I was smitten. On its best day, broccoli arrived steamed or, worse, boiled. Never pickled and never fried. Glazed carrots? Please. Forget covering them with brown sugar and butter. You could have coated those orange sticks with Skittles, and I still wouldn’t touch them. But okra never deceived.

Being a chef, I repeatedly field these three questions: 1) What is your favorite thing to cook? Answer: depends on which way the wind blows. 2) What is your favorite restaurant to eat at? Answer: not telling. 3) What made you want to cook? Answer: Sunday suppers.

I grew up in a typical Southern family. Every Sunday, my parents and I would head to my grandparents’ home in Pleasant Grove to have a family meal with all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. My grandpa grew vegetables year-round in his backyard. My cousins and I spent many a Sunday chasing each other around the garden, picking bugs and lizards from the garden, and even gnawing on cucumbers while they were still on the plant. As the sun set, we would all find our way back into the house and settle around the table, we to the kids’ table and the parents to the “big people” table. Okra was often served at Sunday supper.

A friend once told me that his mom carried Marlboro Reds and Virginia Slims in her purse. He knew what kind of mood she was in by which pack she was smoking. We didn’t always have okra at Sunday supper, but everything else on the table tasted better when we did. Okra was the Virginia Slims of my Sundays.

As I got older and my taste buds evolved, fried foods figured less prominently in my diet. Eventually, I discovered the world of stewed okra and gumbo. Yes and yes. Grilled okra? Yes again. And you haven’t lived until you have picked a piece of okra off the plant and bitten into it raw and still warm from the sun.

Okra also has this beautiful way of transcending all socioeconomic classes. Only the affluent nibble upon osetra caviar and foie gras, but everybody feasts like royalty on fried okra. One of my favorite kitchen stories involves my time at Parigi. Janice Provost (my former business partner and current chef-owner of Parigi) brought in several pounds of okra from the Dallas Farmers Market one summer afternoon. I decided to make my mom’s fried okra salad (fried okra, diced tomato, scallion, white vinegar, sugar, and olive oil). Janice, perplexed, giggled at my idea of a cold salad with fried okra. That was until we sold out of the salad in the first 30 minutes of dinner service. The next night, she came back with twice as much okra. We sold out of the salad in 45 minutes. That marked the birth of Ninny’s Salad on the summer Parigi menu. The same salad won the top honors at the 2011 and 2012 Promise of Peace Okra Palooza. Today in Dallas you can order fried okra at most any fried chicken drive-thrus or sit down and savor it with a nice glass of rosé at an Uptown bistro.

But, alas, all good things must come to an end. As I have learned from local farmers, finicky okra requires a soil temperature of at least 70 degrees to grow. So okra season is from late spring through early autumn in Texas. Why is Ninny’s Salad no longer on the menu in November, you ask? It is simply out of season. This wisdom stands as a testament to seasonal integrity, but it does not typically satisfy a craving for a fried okra salad. Until next spring …

Chad Houser is the founder of Cafe Momentum, a program that teaches restaurant skills to kids serving time in the Dallas County Youth Village.